Well, not every classic is really ‘classic’, but I’m so glad I stumbled across this in a local 2nd hand store. Wow. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before – and I don’t think it’d get past a publisher these days. It’s so loose, it’s almost like a soap opera (and it fits that it was originally published in episodes): she feels no need to tie everything tightly around one major plot, with maybe a couple of sub-plots. The uniting thing is the town (well, generally some of the wealthier elements of the town – although there is some range of class), and the gaze moves here and there among various residents. The characters are really potent. Not necessarily multi-layered and complex, but striking, and Eliot seems to have a gift for finding something authentic to focus on without becoming a mere stereotype. I am reminded of some of C.S. Lewis’ characters, having some essential moral point about them: I know he enjoyed this book, and definitely he could have drawn something of that Screwtape notion of the profound implications of seemingly small actions, interactions, attitudes and choices. Particularly by the end of the book Eliot is quite philosophically didactic, with true heroism painted as the generous life of someone quietly forgotten.
This book also leads me to an odd comparison – with Fred Saberhagen’s ‘Swords’ series, based around a dozen god-forged blades, each with a particular, if you like, super-power (e.g. healing wounds, cutting stone, bringing luck, drawing loyalty etc.). The fun is watching the way they interact, enhancing, neutralising, antagonising, inflaming each other. Eliot manages that with her characters – she creates such strong personalities I came away with a renewed sense of how valuable each of us are, the significance of everyday choices, the tragedy and triumph of the mundane. Each of Eliot’s main characters has the presence of one of these god-forged swords, yet can be influenced well or ill by interplay. Context and personality both work on each other: neither nature nor nurture makes something inevitable – but they are both also hugely powerful. I loved the way that, for example, Dorothea’s naively optimistic egocentrism – that she is made to improve the lot of the unfortunate – is not merely dismissed nor endorsed. Her strong personality works both for and against her. There are elements of this in some of Austen’s characters, and doubtless Eliot was across Austen, but Eliot feels no obligation to have fairy-tale endings. Dorothea’s zeal can both trap and free her – and this despite the purity of her intentions.
It’s also a delight that the story doesn’t stop with a wedding, but follows the course of marriage (or two). There’s also wonderful room to move: even characters that you are made to think should end up together won’t necessarily. And even that won’t necessarily be a bad thing.
The book is hugely psychological, constantly highlighting the gaps between why people act the way they do, and the reasons they think they behave that way. Self-awareness is a rare commodity. There is also a huge amount of pride behind actions: I know it’s still a huge motivator, but at times in the book I wondered if in that society at that time there was a far greater need to be seen a certain way by your neighbours. At times I lost myself in the torturous logic of why these young (or even not so young) swains with burning passions could never admit to them – but I do live in a time and place where our mythology so strongly condemns (theoretically anyway) money being admitted as a reasonable obstacle to romance. But there are other reasons why people, even well meaning people, can get caught up in destructive conversational patterns that make a hell out of a potential heaven (a point well made in Ann Tyler’s painfully insightful, ‘Breathing Lessons’).
I’m not completely convinced by all of Eliot’s characters, and I’m also separated from some of the potency of some of the conventions she’s playing with by time and my own context’s assumptions. But I’m still mightily impressed and will definitely seek out some more of her books. And this one goes straight onto my, “To be read again,” shelf.